Rahim Al Haj's Odyssey with the Oud The ancient stringed instrument has taken the Iraqi musician from Baghdad to New Mexico. He talks about his journey and his new CD, When the Soul Is Settled: Music of Iraq.
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Rahim Al Haj's Odyssey with the Oud

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Rahim Al Haj's Odyssey with the Oud

Rahim Al Haj's Odyssey with the Oud

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When he was a young boy in Baghdad, Rahim Al Haj picked up the oud, a forebear of the European lute, and for that matter, of most modern string instruments. The oud would become the center of his life and the soundtrack of a journey that eventually took him from Iraq to America in 2000.

Rahim Al Haj now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and he joins us with his oud.

Hello, Rahim.

Mr. RAHIM AL HAJ (Oud Player): Hi, Jacki. Glad to be here.

LYNDEN: Your music speaks so much to the journeys that you've made. You were imprisoned during Saddam Hussein's time. Can you tell me a little bit about what happened?

Mr. AL HAJ: Yeah. I was politically active and I was physically active against Saddam's regime during the '80s. I composed songs to criticize the Iran-Iraq War during that time. So because of all my activities, they imprisoned me for one year and a half and second time was six months.

LYNDEN: And eventually, in the early '90s, you fled Iraq and went to Syria and Jordan and have more recently come here. I'm wondering, are there any of your compositions that you think about, particularly in synchronicity with your friends, with your family, and your thoughts, the people you talk to, as they go through the terrible struggle they're undergoing right now, as you try to reach out to them?

Mr. AL HAJ (Musician): That's right. Basically always when I am composing music, I'm not composing it just to entertaining people. A lot of time, I collect stories that I hear from friends, from them, from somebody else, and I'm trying to give them some voice. Because I believe deeply, profoundly that especially children, they do not have a voice. I need to be their voice and to explain their pain, their happiness, their frustration and their current life.

LYDEN: You have a piece on a previous album called dream that speaks to the suffering you've seen. You've brought your oud along with you today. Could you play us something from it?

Mr. AL HAJ: Sure.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: That was lovely and haunting and a very, very moving piece.

Mr. AL HAJ: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: You say that it gives voice particularly to children. Since we don't hear words, what are the images and what is the story that you're seeing as you play?

Mr. AL HAJ: This conversation actually I had with my nieces and nephews, and I was telling them, what are you dreaming right now? And they said, well, actually, we dream to go to school and have clean water and have electric power and being safe.

And I said, but this is basics, life. It's not dream. And they said that's what we are dreaming right now.

LYDEN: Have you visited Iraq since 2003?

Mr. AL HAJ: Yeah, I visit Iraq in 2004, and it was very emotional and sad visit. I am so happy, you know, being able to visit my country again. And the same time, there's a lot of things has been changed. On a personal level that you feel you are dead, passed away, and your mom is almost close to die and friends that they killed or my students, for example. When I left them, nine and 10, and I find them 23. I've been away 13 years, and there is a lot of things has been changed.

LYDEN: Right. Now you have settled in New Mexico and you've written a piece that reflects on the landscape, which some people told you they believed would remind you a great deal of Iraq. But you said no. It actually looks a lot different.

Mr. AL HAJ: Well, it's more green.

LYDEN: In New Mexico?

Mr. AL HAJ: It's a beautiful state. To me, to be honest, I would say that Albuquerque, New Mexico, it is my beloved home. I find oak in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. In Iraq I was connected to palm trees. And when I came here and I find oak, I love that relationship between the tree and the Earth. It's so profound, very deep. So I composed this piece, "Oak, Honor and My Beloved Home."

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Have you ever had to be without your oud? I would think that it is the thing that unites the past and the present for you.

Mr. AL HAJ: Never. When I was a child, I was addicted - and I'm still addicted for my oud - I was addicted to sleep, I cannot sleep without my instrument. I have to hold it, I cover it with my sheet and sleep together, constantly, until my father said, well, he is insane, you know, we need to do something about it.

And I never been away until I left Iraq, actually. When I crossed the border between Iraq and Jordan, they took my instrument from me. And this is the saddest moment in my entire life. You're not allowed to take your instrument from Iraq to other country unless you have permission from the government. And it was a choice between leave my instrument or have life. I had to leave, so I left Iraq and I left my instrument behind me.

And now I have a really beautiful, beautiful oud from Iraq.

LYDEN: Well, it's a beautiful story and beautiful music, and thank you very much for sharing with us.

Mr. AL HAJ: Thank you very much. Pleasure being here.

LYDEN: Iraqi oud player Rahim Al Haj. His new album is "When the Soul is Settled: Music of Iraq."

Thank you for joining us.

Mr. AL HAJ: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

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